Word of The Day: Spiel

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture, Online English lessons

Sometimes, teaching advanced students can be more challenging than teaching beginners, so it’s always fun for me when I come across a commonly used word that I think might stump my advanced English language learners.

Today’s word is spiel. Spiel can be pronounced with either an “sp” as in “spot” or an “shp” which is a little unusual in English. (You can hear it here.)  The word’s origin is German and Yiddish. It’s a borrowed word, and the way we use it is a little different than how it is used in those languages.

I ran across it in a recent article in The New Yorker. The distributor of plant-based sandwiches is explaining his approach to selling these products to bodega owners in New York City:

 “In the beginning, we were doing a lot of explaining,” he said. “We used to give people a whole spiel about why you should eat these products. And we realized that just wasn’t the right approach…”

Can you guess the meaning from the context?

A “spiel” is a long elaborate story. It is often used to persuade someone. The meaning in German is game or play, but that’s not how we use it in English.

Here are two more examples:

The salesman gave me some spiel about how I really didn’t want the car I came in there to buy, and how this other more expensive car would make so much more sense for me.

His mother sent the priest to talk to him about changing his ways. The priest gave him a long spiel about how he was heading for hell, but of course it made no difference.

Notice in both these examples the “spiel” is used for persuasion. Hence, a spiel can also be used to describe a long “pitch.” It is not a “bad” word, but “pitch” sounds more neutral and professional. “Spiel” sounds like someone is trying to sell you something. In the above excerpt from the article, the use of “pitch” wouldn’t convey how much effort went into the story that the distributor was making and how detailed the pitch was.  We understand from the phrase “a whole spiel” that this was an elaborate, long pitch and he probably lost the bodega owner’s  attention at some point, which is why he needed to change his approach.

Here are some quick definitions and explanations for some other words used in this post:

To stump (someone): To ask someone a question that they don’t know the answer to. This is an informal but common usage. We also use this often as an adjective, to be stumped by something means to have no answer or explanation. Here are some examples:

The contestant knew all the answers during the main part of the game, but the final question stumped him. He left his answer card blank and lost everything.

The teacher asked me the question, but I had no idea how to answer. I was stumped. I was silent until he moved on to another student. It was so embarrassing. 

To run across something or someone:  to find something or someone incidentally. We also use “come across” in the same idiomatic way. Here are some examples:

I had given up on ever finding the right birthday gift for my brother, but then I was cleaning the house, and ran across some old childhood photos, and I decided to make a collage for him. 

I know you have an interest in gardening. I ran across this interesting article I think you should read. 

Bodega: Bodega is borrowed from Spanish. Like many borrowed words, the meaning is a little different in English. It was probably brought to New York by people who came from Puerto Rico. It was used in Puerto Rican neighborhoods to describe small grocery stores that sold a variety of goods. Eventually, all New Yorkers started to use the term to describe small grocery stores. It is now used in other parts of the United States as well. We also use it as an adjective to describe the things you find or buy in a bodega. For example: a bodega sandwich. There are Instagram feeds devoted to the cats that live in bodegas and are known as “bodega cats. Here’s a picture of one:

(If you found this post interesting, check back for more content! If you are interested in taking English lessons with me, please drop me a line.


The Most Confusing Phrasal Verb in English!

Posted on Posted in American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Online English lessons, Phrasal Verbs, Tutoring

English has tons of idioms and phrasal verbs which are difficult for non-native speakers to master. Phrasal verbs are especially tough because they often have more than one meeting, or the meaning is idiomatic and difficult to explain. I love to teach the difficult ones! One of my favorites is “set off.” “Set off” seems to mean the opposite of what we think it should mean. 

Take a look at the examples below. Can you guess the meaning from the context clues provided?

My house guests forgot to turn off the burglar alarm, and accidentally set it off when they entered through the back door. The sound was very loud and woke the neighbors, who called the police.

Adding the new chemical to the formula set off a chain reaction that led to an explosion. Fortunately, no one in the lab was injured.

The terrorist tried to set off a bomb in his vest by pulling on a cord. Many people would have been killed or injured, but fortunately the bomb’s fuse didn’t ignite, and no one was hurt.

Something must have set Bill off.  When he came in this morning he seemed normal, but later that day he suddenly became upset and yelled at his assistant. Then he announced he left the office abruptly. Did he get some bad news or something?

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t set off fireworks in their backyard. Fireworks are loud and dangerous, not to mention illegal. 

Try this: If you think you understand the meaning of “set off” in the above examples,  substitute another word or phrase for set off:

My house guests accidentally ________________________  the burglar alarm.

Adding the new chemical to the formula ________________ a chain reaction that led to an explosion.

The terrorist tried to ________________ a bomb in his vest by pulling on a cord. 

Something must have ____________  Bill.  

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t  ____________fireworks in their backyard. 

Okay, now that you’ve tried it, I’ll give you an explanation with some possible substitutions

My house guests forgot to turn off the burglar alarm, and accidentally set it off when they entered through the back door.

The burglar alarm STARTED when they entered..

Adding the new chemical set off a chain reaction that led to an explosion.

The new chemical STARTED or CAUSED  a chain reaction.

The terrorist tried to set off a bomb 

The terrorist tried to START the process to make the bomb explode. He tried to IGNITE the bomb.

Something must have set Bill off. 

Something must have CAUSED  Bill TO BECOME ANGRY or upset. Something must have STARTED or IGNITED his anger.

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t set off fireworks in their backyard. 

I wish my neighbors wouldn’t IGNITE fireworks. I wish my neighbors wouldn’t CAUSE fireworks TO EXPLODE.

In all of the above examples to “set off” means to “start” something in the sense of  “ignite” or “spark.”

This can seem counterintuitive because we think of the word “off” as stopping a reaction, not starting one. For example: We turn off the light. We shut off the oven. We complete a journey and get off the bus. However, “off” is a word that can be used in many ways and with different meanings. Context is everything in English.

In all of the examples above “set off” has a similar “explosive” meaning. However, sometimes we use “set off” in a less explosive way. We can use it simply in the sense of starting a journey or trip. Here are some examples:

We set off early in the morning because we wanted to arrive with enough time to enjoy the day.

I’m setting off for Mexico later in the week. The ship sails on Thursday.

When I set off  for work that day, I had no idea that everything in my life was about to change. 

In the examples above, the phrasal verb “head off” could be substituted, as that also means to start a journey.  However, we cannot use “head off” in the previous examples where “set off” means to start in the sense of ignite or spark. “Head off” also has a second meaning. We use “head off” to mean to avoid something by going in a different direction. Let’s look at an example of both of these phrases in the same paragraph:

Bob and John seemed to set each other off. Their personalities were just very different and they didn’t get along with each other or work well together. In order to head off problems, their supervisor placed them on different teams so they never worked directly with each other.

In the above example “set off” is used in the negative sense of igniting some kind of friction. The men didn’t get along. Therefore, the supervisor wanted to “head off” or “avoid” problems, and kept the men separated. The words cannot be used interchangeably. 

There is also a third common use of “set off.” We use “set off” to describe the way one element brings attention to or shows a contrast with another element. We use it in descriptions of people, decorations, designs, etc. Here are two examples:

Jenna looks great in that blue shirt. The light blue color sets off the deep blue of her eyes. It’s a fantastic color for her. You really notice her eyes when she wears it!

There are several lamps in the painting. The light from the lamps is set off against the otherwise bleak scene of war and destruction.The light symbolizes hope and contrasts with the chaos surrounding it.

You are likely to encounter “set off” in everyday speech, as well as in books, movies, and television shows.

I hope you found this lesson on “set off” useful. Feel free to leave comments or questions. If you are interested in taking English lessons with me, please get in touch!